J. D. Salinger (1919-2010): Waiting for the Second Act

The death of an author can be a traumatic event to his (or her) readers, especially if the author was prolific.  John Updike is a good example of this. But J. D. Salinger was not John Updike. As far as his readers were concerned he’s been, practically speaking, dead to them (or more aptly, they were dead to him) since  Hapworth 16, 1924 appeared in the  June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. For close to half a century Salinger protected his privacy and work zealously.  No awards, no interviews, no biographies, films or sequels were permitted. The only access his readers were given was to the one novel and the three amazing short story collections – and in many ways that was enough.  For the obsessive there was always his uncollected works to seek out in magazine back issues and archives.  But there’s been nothing new, of any literary value, for 45 years.  With his death last week that all may be about to change.

A lot was said about Catcher in the Rye these last few days.  My personal infatuation with Salinger began with his short stories – all of which, in one way or another, deal with the Glass family.  The seven children of two retired Vaudeville performers (5 brothers and 2 sisters) are all above average in intelligence, physically attractive and unusually gifted. Seymour, the eldest, committed suicide at age 30 because (if we are to believe his brother Buddy’s version of events) he was too good for this world.  Buddy is Salinger’s alter ego, and the keeper of the family chronicle.  The remaining children:  Boo Boo (the “Tuckahoe homemaker”), Walt (the most cheerful), Waker (a priest, mentioned but never seen) , Zooey (“the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo”)  & Franny (the youngest)  were all schooled in Eastern mysticism, philosophy and religion at the knees of their two elder brothers.  If Holden Caulfield was someone I could relate to in my teenage years, reading about the Glass family guided me through my 20’s and helped me discover who I wanted to become.  I can’t really explain why, other than that they were smart and good and all spoke like actors in pre-code Hollywood films.

Not everyone felt the same way.  Salinger’s New York Times obituary has a wonderful quote from Updike (taken from his 1961 review of Franny & Zooey).

Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.

Updike considers this a flaw.  And therein lay the crux of Salinger’s problem with the critics.

I was able to read Hapworth 16, 1924 by painstakingly photocopying  it from microfilm at the NY Public Library.  Stupidly, a year later I lent my copy to someone I admired and it was never returned.   (There’s a karmic lesson in that I’m sure).  But what I remember is a letter home from camp by a very young Seymour Glass written in a very adult voice.  In it he predicts his own death.  And while it rambled on a bit, and didn’t sound very much like a 7-year old boy writing to his father,  it explained a good deal.  It also hinted at some tantalizing possibilities as to what Salinger had planned for the Glass-es.

The Glass family seems to have evolved into more of a spiritual quest for Salinger than anything else – now complete with a Christ figure and assorted martyrs, prophets, apostles and priests (a whole ecclesiastical cast, in fact).  He became too close to his material, emotionally exposing himself every time he published and making many of his readers uncomfortable because of it.   Focusing on spirituality is dangerous ground for any author to walk, doubly so for one who built his literary reputation with stories set on the Upper East Side of New York City and reviewed in  the New York Times and the NYRB.   And yet, with the Glass family, Salinger was shamelessly pushing religion and morality door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness.  It must have seemed so unsophisticated, so gauche, so anti-everything the Algonquin Round Table had stood for.  Salinger had broken some mid-century literary establishment taboo, and as a result the critics sprang on him like hyenas on a wounded wildebeest.

Janet Malcolm’s NYRB article from June, 2001 –  Justice to J. D. Salinger – discusses this critical backlash.  I won’t bore anyone with my own attempt.  But I wanted to mention the infamous 1996 incident where  Salinger gave a small publishing house  permission to put out a limited edition of Hapworth 16, 1924.  Typically, the news Salinger was going to have a “new” release caused a minor media frenzy.  (The Washington Post recently featured  an interesting article where the publisher explains what happened).  Critics scurried over to the New Yorker’s archives to write their reviews of the story prior to the book’s release – and what they wrote was not pretty.  Some of it was downright petty.  The reviews are online, if you want to look them up.  Suffice it to say that when it was over I wasn’t the least surprised that Salinger backed out of the deal  and withdrew once again to New Hampshire.

This intensely personal connection and protectiveness towards his work and characters leads me to believe the reports that Salinger continued writing without publishing, despite the lack of proof.  Whether or not what he has written is any good – well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?  I’m fairly confident we’ll find out, regardless of whatever instructions were left.  And I’m grateful for it.  I don’t see it as a betrayal of the author’s wishes, or a situation like the recent Nabokov circus over The Original of Laura.  I’m not expecting half-finished manuscripts being passed off as novels. What Salinger left was not work he held back from publishing because he didn’t think it was good enough.  In his mind we were the parties lacking.

So I expect there will be good writing. There may also be some awful writing… and honestly, what if there is?  At the end of Franny and Zooey, Zooey tells his sister that because she came home “if you look at it a certain way, by rights you’re only entitled to the low-grade spiritual counsel we’re able to give you around here, and no more”.  He makes a good point.  Awful writing comes with the territory and, as always with Salinger, it’s ultimately subjective.  I, for one, have waited a long time to find out where he was headed after Hapworth.  At this point I’ll be happy with whatever I can get.

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Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Phineas William Walsh is on a mission.  He’s going to save the world one endangered species at a time – and he’s depending on the Green Channel to help him do it.  That is until things go terribly, horribly wrong… as they only can in the life of a fourth grader.

Carla Gunn’s first novel, Amphibian, is both entertaining and engaging.  Written in the first person, it’s greatest strength may be it’s  narrator –  who owes a significant debt to Holden Caulfield (the hero and narrator of Catcher in the Rye).  And I mean that in the best possible way.  Because there’s more going on in Phin’s life than meets the eye – and he has a lot on his mind other than the planet.   His grandfather just passed away and his grandmother is sad.  His parents are separated and his Mom is dating a guy Phin doesn’t like. Not that he likes the idea of her dating. Period.  His father is out of the country 80% of the time and doesn’t know what’s going on.  He’s also the class bully’s favorite target.

And then (if that wasn’t enough!) there is the issue of the Gorachs from the planet Reull.  They’re destroying the planet and the other creatures of Reull need to figure out what to do before it is too late:

When my mom went to do some work in her study, I went upstairs and wrote about Reull and drew some pictures of them.  I drew the Jingleworm, who is red and white and has a part on the end of its body that jingles like a bell wherever it goes.  The Jingleworm’s predator is the Three-clawed Wren and it jingles so much that the Wren doesn’t have any problem finding it to eat.

But then the Jingleworms started to hide in the coat of the Green-tailed Squirrel, which didn’t mind because the loud jingling noise of the Jingleworm scared away its predator, the Electric Cat.  The Electric Cat’s ears are very sensitive to the jingling noise.  To it the Jingleworm sounds like somebody scraping their nails on a chalkboard sounds to us.  Sot the Jingleworm and the Green-tailed Squirrel have a symbiotic relationship.

The problem again is the Gorachs.  They are starting to collect Jingleworm tails for jingly bracelets, which they give to their Gorach children.  The Gorachs are parasites, so many of the animals are working on making more symbiotic relationships.  The Gorachs are in for a surprise.

Sure, it has become a cliché to compare novels narrated by juveniles to Catcher in the Rye, but in the case of Amphibian it works.  I’ve always believed that readers tend to miss the whole point of what Salinger was trying to do, – not surprising since his novel has mainly been defined by controversy.  The focus has always been on Salinger’s creation of a smart ass kid doing scandalous things, at least by 1950’s standards.  (You can just imagine what the reaction would have been to Gossip Girl)!

Subsequently, the story Salinger was trying  to tell is too often overlooked.  It is about a young boy, whose even younger brother has just died of leukemia.  Catcher in the Rye, at its heart, is about Holden attempting to deal with his grief.  And doing so in the absence of (I’d even go so far as to say his abandonment by) the adults who should be comforting him.  All the rest, the celebrated language and famous scene with the prostitute, is just so much white noise put up by Holden between himself and his emotions.

I do not want to misrepresent Amphibian as being a heavy novel, though it does touch on some surprisingly heavy material.  Phin is dealing with kinds of grief (and accompanying feelings of helplessness) that he’s too young to put a name to.  Or, like Holden, to even recognize.  But to Gunn’s credit, she chose to tell her story through the eyes of a 9-year old boy – which gives it a very different flavor than if it had been told by, let’s say, that boy’s mother or teacher.  Gunn reveals what’s going on with Phin in a way that perfectly captures a young child’s lack of perspective.   Divorce, bully, species extinction and permission to watch the Green Channel all carry equal weight and importance in Phin’s world.  Because everything is the end of the world – nothing is.  And Phin is a really funny kid.  His humor moves the book along quickly and, thankfully, saves it from becoming the angst-fest it might have been.

This morning I woke up to an awful sound – it was like a wolf trying to howl after swallowing one of those birthday-party noisemakers.  And it was standing over me.

I was a little worried about what I might see – maybe a pack of wolves having a birthday party and the cake just happened to be me – but I took a chance and opened my eyes.  My mother was standing there and that awful noise was coming from her.  She was smiling so I figured she wasn’t choking or something, so I asked her what the heck she was doing.

“I’m yodeling, Phin,” she said.

“But you’re not on a mountain,” I said.  “You’re standing over me making that awful sound.  I thought you were a wolf with something caught in its throat.  If you were a wolf, you’d have to be the alpha because if you were a submissive, the others would attack you for making a sound like that.”

Overall, Amphibian tells a good story about an average child working his way through a world where very little is under his control.  Carla Gunn allows us to smile at his tribulations knowing, even if he doesn’t, that Phin is one of the lucky ones.  Unlike Holden he has grown-ups around who love him and have his best interests at heart.  In the end, that makes all the difference.

Note:  Amphibian is Carla Gunn’s first novel.  While I’ve no knowledge of it being marketed as a YA, it is definitely  straddling the line between categories.  It does not rank high on the BookSexy scale, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Think of it as enviro-lit made more palatable by added sugar.

The book, itself, is more attractive than your average paperback  – with bright glossy covers.  The front end paper is a full page bleed b&w photo of a South America Red-eyed frog (the same little guy who made the cover).  The pages are nice and thick with a slightly corrugated texture.  The publisher is Coach House Books, out of Canada.